For the next four weeks, Peter, Kora and Eun beat Blake and his cronies time and again, honing their teamwork by leaps and bounds. Blake’s gang used the same moves (said the same words, even) but Peter and his friends were constantly refining, constantly evolving. Soon, they were able to act as a single, unified consciousness.
Four weeks in, the attacks stopped. Peter and Kora were initially puzzled, but it all made sense when Eun put it in context.
“Dissona’s evolving,” she said as Kora rummaged through her locker.
“How can that be?” Peter demanded. “Didn’t you say she wanted to avoid evolution?”
“It’s not a choice,” Eun explained. “As much as Dee desires stasis, existence won’t tolerate it. We’ve been beating the ass off her goons, so she’s decided to bench them for now and save them for later. She’s trying to strategize.”
“Yeah,” Kora grunted, shoving a stack of books into the upper cabinet of her locker. “But unfortunately for her, it won’t accelerate her demonic ascendance. From an arcane perspective, she’s already injected a set amount of energy into her minions. There’s a kind of…” she struggled to find the words. “There’s a kind of pact you commit to when you use that style of magic.”
“Sounds like a 401k,” Peter said. “You get penalized for withdrawing before a certain date. You have to let your money sit and grow.”
“Mm hmm.” Kora nodded. “That’s exactly what it’s like.”
“Can we shift focus?” Peter asked. “Now that Blake’s leaving us alone, we can ease up on the go-team-go stuff, right?”
“Sure.” Eun shrugged.
“Yes!” Peter pumped his fist. “I was getting tired of all those post-battle debriefs.”
“I was enjoying them.” Kora sighed wistfully.
“We’ve got two months ’til prom,” Peter said. “What do we do to fill the time?”
“Back to the basics,” Eun said. “Prep our stuff, keep an eye out…that kind of thing.”
“Great,” Peter smacked a fist into his palm. “I got a big-ass list of things to get ready.”
Kora raised a finger. “A word of advice. I’ve been through a lot of these—you know, gear up, make plans, put on your game face…people tend to forget one thing, over and over without fail. And it’s super important.” She regarded her friends with a weighted look.
“And that would be?” Peter prompted.
“Try and have fun.”
“Destination, not the journey, right?”
This, of course, had come from Eun.
While the three teen-heroes spent a month fighting Blake, Holly had spent an entire decade trekking across the Territories.
Ten years ago, she’d found a way to kill the spider-beasts. It had taken six months to hone her magic to where she could do it reliably. During that time, she’d had to shelter in a cave, feasting on the pallid insects that roamed its depths. They tasted pungent and cloying, but they’d kept her alive. Once she could kill the spider-beasts, she’d struck out across the Territories, not just eating them, but fashioning armor from their gleaming carapace. She was now clad in a rough patchwork of chitinous shell.
Ten years of roaming the Territories. Ten years of monotony and drudgery.
A deep part of her knew that her will to live had pushed her magic to new heights. When she’d been training under Estilian, she’d experienced long days of teeth-grinding frustration. It was only when he’d threatened her life that she’d finally been able to tap her potential. And then later, when she’d been driven into the cave by the gnashing spider-beasts, the prospect of death had allowed her to master Senkilo’s Cannon.
Other spells had followed. She could wield something akin to a laser whip; it cut her enemies’ forelegs and thoraxes into bleeding chunks. She’d also mastered basic telekinesis; during a fight, she could grapple with her assailants using her mind alone, disrupting their momentum and lining them up for devastating combos. By this point she was an accomplished mage, but something sinister had happened along the way: the Territories’ magic had warped her mind.
Either that or it was warping reality.
Holly knew from previous research that a journey through the Territories took six months, maybe seven months tops. But she’d been stuck in the wasteland for over a decade. She’d followed the Raging Centaur (a constellation whose bottom-most star pointed to the south) with unwavering diligence. She wasn’t circling or straying off course. That wasn’t all.
One year ago, the spider-beasts had begun to wear her face.
Now, their thoraxes were topped by a blonde-haired, blue-eyed head. She’d destroy her pursuers with eldritch weaponry, littering the hardscrabble with leaking body parts, but she couldn’t bring herself to destroy the heads. Back when they’d been blank-eyed insects, she’d gone for their skulls every time—damaging their brains was the easiest way to cut them down. But after they’d stolen her face (that’s how she’d thought of it, hence her name for them: face-stealers) she couldn’t kill them in the same manner. Even though it took more effort, she found other ways, she would slice their limbs out from under their bodies, then target their legless torsos with a heavy blast.
After her arcane kill-fests, face-stealer heads would lay scattered across the earth, dotting the Territories with countless variations of her decapitated visage. A lot looked angry, some looked sad, but most just stared blankly ahead. As she sawed the meat out from beneath the chitin, she would keep her eyes on her grisly task, refusing to look at her macabre reflections.
Holly was surrounded by reminders of herself, yet she couldn’t bear to acknowledge them.
Another decade passed.
Her muscles became gnarled and ropy, her skin became dry and spotted. Her hair—now a long, gray-white veil—cast a constant shadow across her features. During her fifteenth year in this brutal perdition, she began to wonder if she’d lost her mind. Had she ever been a cheerleader, or was that just a dream? It seemed absurd that she existed at all. The only things that seemed real was this endless trek and her relentless pursuers. The entirety of her world had been reduced to her meaningless quest, the unfeeling sun, and eternal combat.
Was this Hell? She didn’t know.
All she knew was she had to keep going. She kept pushing through an alien nightmare, ironically surrounded by the one thing that was most familiar to her:
Her own image.